Dangerous times

Posted: Jun 25, 2003 12:00 AM

Often the most dangerous time of war is not at the moment of certain battle, but during the long periods of uncertainty in between major fighting. We are at such a moment currently. The Taliban have been overturned (their leaders killed, arrested or scattered), but Afghanistan remains ungoverned and dangerous. Saddam's regime is well and truly conquered, but the Iraqi people remain restive. Iran simmers over a nuclear flame, while its people chafe and struggle against the mullahs' manacles. North Korea's nuclear pot is also on simmer. The afterglow of heroic victory in Iraq fades as the dreary, but deadly, Iraqi municipal management quietly filters through the news. Overarching these events, the war on al Qaeda continues, the events of which are known to the public largely by episodic governmental releases of secret information. Provision for homeland defense has become the almost exclusive possession of bureaucrats, experts and the occasional interested congressman, senator or journalist. Of course, Middle East peace remains elusive. For many people it may all seem rather gray and inconclusive at the moment.

The president has proven magnificent at leading us through the vivid moments. It remains to be seen how he handles war morale during the waiting periods. But his performance now, no less than during the glory moments, will either measurably add to or subtract from the quality of his war leadership. Because many wars are lost for lack of leadership, we should all hope for his continued success. Which is not to say that the president, or his government, should be immune from criticism. To the contrary, as Winston Churchill explained at the beginning of WWII: "we take (criticism) earnestly to heart and seek to profit by it. Criticism in the body politic is like pain in the human body. It is not pleasant. But where would the body be without it? No health or sensibility would be possible without continued correctives and warnings of pain." It is the leader's job to discern the useful criticisms from the many others that inevitably are raised -- to take advantage of good counsel and ignore bad counsel.

Just now, the two major challenges to his war leadership revolve around the missing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the governance of Iraq -- particularly the often daily killing of American soldiers. Notwithstanding the howls and entreatments of many in Congress and the media, the mystery of the missing WMDs is being handled impeccably by the president. The American public has correctly moved past this matter. Congressional oversight will help establish the permanent pre-war history, and if there are any lessons to be learned from that inquiry, all the better. But doubtlessly more on the president's mind at the moment is the continuing toll of American military casualties being taken in Iraq. So far, it is not getting major news coverage; but as the deaths go on, the coverage will increase.

There well may be advisors to the president suggesting that he minimize these sad events. But I believe that would be both out of character for George Bush and counter-productive. As both man and president, Mr. Bush's central attributes are honor, fortitude and (if I may use an antique word) manliness -- what the ancients called virtue. The president should not run from these deaths but embrace them. He should meet with their families and publicly avow the value and importance of these sacrifices. Because they are not meaningless or senseless, but every bit a part of the noble struggle against terrorism. The president obviously believes that. His character will drive him to publicly validate those convictions, notwithstanding any contrary counsel he may receive.

The public understands better than the pundits and politicians the nature of this war on terrorism. Iraq, Afghanistan, al Qaeda, homeland security, the Middle East peace effort, the democracy project for the Middle East, Iran, North Korea: Its all of one piece. Yesterday's Gallup poll shows by 56 percent to 38 percent the public supports war against Iran to stop them acquiring nuclear weapons. The American public is in this for the long haul. They will not turn on the president for sticking it out in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else that makes sense. They understand this is a war to the death -- either the terrorists and their hosts, or ours. If these deaths are seen to be necessary for victory, many deaths will be honored by the public. If they are seen as meaningless errors, even one would be seen as too many. The continuing deaths of American and British soldiers in Iraq should not be rhetorically minimized -- but sanctified.